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SHI REVIEWED | THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (PART I)

This blog series is a first and a last. It is a first because it features book reviews, something I have never attempted to do outside of class. My project requires regular reading and meaningful commentary. I consider doing one well to be a personal accomplishment. To do both well is my goal. This blog series is also a last because I will graduate in May. I could not think of a better way to wrap up my time as a Sun writer than to learn how to be a more consistent, thoughtful reader.

The Underground Railroad is a novel written by Colson Whitehead that won the 2016 National Book Award. It is a tale about a teenage slave girl named Cora and her escape from the Randall plantation in Georgia. Several chapters in, the reader discovers that the title of the novel belies a truly literal meaning: the Underground Railroad is in fact both underground and a railroad. Cora and her companion Caesar are no less shocked to discover this development:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”
Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”
“It must have taken years.”
“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”
“Who built it?”
“Who builds anything in this country?”
Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment. This was not his first performance.
Caesar said, “But how?”
“With their hands, how else?”

While Cora’s escape north sets the plot in motion, Whitehead first introduces his characters by bringing the reader closer to life on the plantation. The prose is episodic, and each vignette insinuates fresh commentary. We learn about Michael, a Randall slave whose former master taught him the Declaration of Independence. Michael entertained his former master’s guests by impressive recital: “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations.” I imagine this must have been a pleasant sound to Michael’s audience. But any of the Randall slaves who can understand these words would tell you that this history of “repeated injuries and usurpations” marks their own bodies as visibly as the cotton grows white before their eyes. Usurpation means taking someone’s power or property by force. It must be fitting that Michael, intending to entertain his white onlookers, instead unknowingly hurled grievances at them. After all, who is declaring independence from whom?

The author reveals Cora’s role on the Randall plantation by her interactions with other slaves. All that her mother bequeaths her is three square yards of a “garden,” a shabby parcel of land in between the slave cabins where Cora fends off children in order to grow her yams. She is a social outcast confined to “The Hob,” a place for the sick and deformed slaves. It is in these horrifying descriptions that we realize Cora’s otherness is as much felt against her own people as against her master: “White men eat you up, but sometimes colored folk eat you up too.”

To close, I’ve only covered the first third of the book in this blog post, as I’ve yet to finish reading. So far, The Underground Railroad has awed me in its naked portrayal of the realities of slavery and escape. Whitehead seizes the opportunity to educate the public about something they think they already know about. In that sense, this work of fiction–with its complicated characters and surprising twists–tells a true story in its own right.  

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